St. Jerome, Doctor of Translation


St. Jerome and the Bible

I’m sure you know that St. Jerome, whom the Church celebrates today, said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  It should be underlined that he didn’t say this in passing.  Jerome’s whole life was oriented around his love of Scripture.  He was an irascible monk from Dalmatia (just to the east of northern Italy), who did Biblical work in Rome and then was sent by the Pope to Bethlehem, where he lived in a cave, studied with local experts, including Jews, and translated the Bible into Latin.  He wasn’t the first one to do that, but he did it well.

But though the best name for St. Jerome would be “Doctor of the Bible,” today I would like us to consider him as the “Doctor of Translation.”

Doctor of the Church (ironically, since we’re talking about a Doctor of Translation) is a poorly translated term.  In Latin, doctor doesn’t mean healer, it means teacher.  (We professor-doctors are more properly doctors than those so-called medical doctors!)  The phrase is used by the tradition to talk about that particular group of saints whose writings are especially important: the “doctors” are the great teachers of “doctrine.”  The title seems to have grown up in part as a kind of liturgical category: some saints’ feasts deserve special liturgical emphasis (and later, a special liturgy) because it is so important that we learn from their writings.

In the West (where they spoke Latin, and so used the Latin word “doctor”) the title first went to St. Augustine, arguably the greatest teacher of the Western tradition (at least until St. Thomas, who viewed him as such); also St. Ambrose, his great and spiritual teacher; St. Gregory the Great, one of the most important ones to translate Augustine into spirituality; and St. Jerome.

Later some Eastern, Greek fathers were named: St. John Chrysostom – his second name means “golden mouth,” because he was the greatest preacher of the early Church, bringing his monastic wisdom to the metropolis of Constantinople; the monk-bishop friends St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus, who especially enriched the teaching of the Trinity; and later, to give the East four like the West, St. Athanasius, great defender of the divinity of Christ.

Later on, Thomas Aquinas was added to the list – and after that the title was extended to many great writers.  The point of all this is that the doctors are great writers.  It is a distinction meant to point us toward writings of the saints as an important part of our faith.



St. Jerome, St. Francis, and Our Lady

Now, the interesting thing for us today is that Jerome is not an especially important writer.  Don’t get me wrong: he was a saint, and like many saints of the early Church, he had interesting things to say about spirituality, and Jesus, and the Bible.  But even his commentaries on Scripture are not that important.

Jerome is not a doctor of the Church because of his original writings.  Jerome is a doctor of the Church because of his translation – of the Bible.

Understand this, and a key element of the Latin tradition suddenly comes into focus.  Jerome is one of the favorite saints of the Middle Ages – and their very most important “writer” (doctor) – purely because he put the Bible into a language people could understand.

The deepest thing we learn from this devotion to St. Jerome is how much the tradition loved the Bible.  But the other thing we learn is how much they loved translation.



St. Jerome (on the right) and the Cross

Let me be blunt.  This is something completely inside out about “traditionalism.”  Some Catholics today love Latin because it’s not the vernacular.  But the Middle Ages loved Latin because it was the vernacular.

Some people know that the Church – in authoritative documents, such as at Trent and Vatican I – said that the Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, is authoritative.  But people wrongly interpret that to mean that Latin is a unique Biblical language.  To the contrary, the tradition – and those documents: read them! – understands the Vulgate to be an endorsement not of Latin, but of translation.  What’s amazing about St. Jerome, for the middle ages, is that he took the Bible out of a language that Westerners could not understand and translated it into a language they could understand.  What’s amazing is that we can hear the Bible in a language we understand.

St. Jerome is, first of all, a saint of loving the Bible.  But he is also, and inseparably, a saint of loving translation into the vernacular.  Vulgate means vernacular, the “vulgar tongue,” the language dumb people speak (or spoke).

If we want to love the Bible – and to love the Tradition, which loves the Bible – we too need to learn to love translation.  Like Jerome, it’s best if we can learn the original languages.  But for all those people who can’t, thank God for saints like Jerome who make the Bible (and the liturgy) accessible in the language of the people.  Thank God for translators.


Twenty-Fifth Sunday: Biblical Social Thought

As I mentioned in my last post, my son has been in and out of the hospital, and so I haven’t had as much time to devote to writing these reflections.  I wish I did, I think it’s good for me.  But Deo gratias, things finally seem to be clearing up, and maybe life will settle down again.  Thanks for all your prayers.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

There’s an important part of the Bible, the Tradition, and the Magisterium that we in America tend to ignore.  It’s often called Catholic Social Thought, and many people who consider themselves orthodox tend to think they can ignore it, based on the assumption that it’s ignorant of the laws of economics.  I used to think that way, until I studied what the Church really teaches.  I found that it’s neither so stupid nor so optional as I had thought.  It’s an important part of letting our faith permeate our lives.  And this past Sunday’s readings give a good opportunity to think about it.


The reading from the prophet Amos is hard hitting.  “When will the new moon be over, you ask.”  The Old Testament, like traditional Catholicism, had many feasts.  Although the main purpose was to worship God, a central part of the practice was to step away from economic work.  In addition to the Sabbath, every month (not on the full moon, when the pagans celebrate, but on the new moon), God’s people were to set aside their economic work and focus on God.

The desire to get back to money making highlights what Jesus says in this week’s Gospel: a servant cannot serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

“We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating.”  Alongside defrauding God, the Old Law also forbids defrauding our neighbor.  The ephah was the measure for flour; it’s tempting for the seller to give the buyer less than he’s paid for.  The shekel was the weight for measuring gold; it’s tempting for the the seller to take more money than the buyer bargained for.

The examples of the fixed scales nicely cut to the heart of Catholic social thought.  We can talk about the laws of economics till we’re blue in the face – and actually, the Church acknowledges that social policy should be based on a good understanding of what “works” economically – but alongside those issues, there are moral issues.  Free market, sure – but beware the constant temptation to cheat.

The next line pushes the issue a little further: “we will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell.”  We saw how the seller can cheat.  But the buyer can cheat too.  And here’s the real danger: the poor are easy to take advantage of.  Enslaving someone “for a pair of sandals” cuts to the heart: when someone is desperate (for clothing, for example – notice Jesus puts clothing the naked alongside feeding the hungry, etc.) they may be willing to be cheated.  But it’s still cheating.  So too with “the refuse of the wheat”: they might be so starved that they are willing to buy junk – but that doesn’t make it right to take their money.


The reading from First Timothy is not obviously connected.  “God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved.”  Well, first, there must be a recognition that there is “one God . . . one mediator . . . Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.”  At the heart of the “preferential option for the poor” is the recognition that Jesus died for them, too – and where he gave himself as ransom, we should not look for easy profit.

But Paul isn’t primarily talking about all being saved.  Actually, “who wills everyone to be saved” is part of saying, “I ask that supplications . . . be offered for everyone.”  The point is not that everyone will be saved.  The point is that we pray for everyone.

Especially, he says, “for kings and for all in authority.”  Well, this isn’t about the poor at all.  But it is about social thought: those with power, whether political or economic, need conversion.  And we want their conversion, too, so “that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life”: we pray, also, for the right to live Catholic social thought, to live justly.


In the Gospel, Jesus commends a “dishonest steward for acting prudently.”  But it’s a funny “dishonesty”: the “dishonesty” of forgiving debts.  Then Jesus says we need to be “trustworthy with dishonest wealth” – or rather, “faithful with the mammon of unjustice”.  That is, in the economic realm, where we are all tempted to cheat and take advantage, we should focus not so much on getting rich in this world as on storing up riches in heaven.

Our deeper concern – and the concern of the Bible and the Church in their social thought – is not how to make a buck, but how we can use our economic life to grow in charity.

In what ways do you think people in our society are tempted to value things more than people – to “fix the scales” – in our economic relationships?

Twenty-Third Sunday: God’s Plans

Thank you to all my readers who have prayed for my son Joseph while he was in the hospital.  The news, in short, is that he is home, but still waiting for something to heal – and there is no guarantee that it won’t heal without surgery.  So please do keep praying for us!


St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

As the second readings of the Sunday Lectionary take us through the Epistles of the New Testament, this week we get a taste of the shortest of Paul’s letters, Philemon.  Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus.  They were both Christians.  Paul speaks here, in a different key from his other letters, about the relation of slaves and masters.

It is sometimes said that the value of science fiction (or also fantasy, like Tolkien or Lewis) is to put human beings in a circumstance very different from usual – and thus to discover what remains true of us in all circumstances.  There is something of that in the differences of earthly vocation.  Paul uses slave and master, the greatest distance, to bring out the essential sameness of human persons.  Slave or master, here or in space or in Mordor, we are human beings.

In our reading, Paul has taken the slave Onesimus to be with him for a time.  Now he sends him back to his master Philemon.  He says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

As things are moved around, we discover what they truly are.  When Paul can dislodge Onesimus from the standard order of things, Philemon can rediscover him for what he truly is, a brother in Christ.


“Perhaps this is why.”  The first reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Its central point is that the reason God’s plans don’t make sense to us is not because they are senseless, but because we are.

I have spoken of this problem before.  Modern Christianity has a tendency to exalt God’s freedom and “will” as if God’s actions were without intelligence.  But no, Scripture is so clear: everything makes perfect sense to God.  Everything is orderly.

But for us, says our reading today, “the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

There are at least two ways the “corruptible body” darkens our intellects.  One is passion: we are so fixed on our own little expectations that we cannot sit back and discover God’s plan.  A second is indeterminacy: we cannot follow through on our plans, nor can anything we see infallibly hit its mark, and so from our perspective, the world often seems random.  But it is not random from God’s perspective.  He has a plan.  He has a way.


In our reading, Paul says, “perhaps this is why.”  But our reading from Wisdom says, “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . .  Who ever knew your counsel?”

Perhaps it is important that Paul says “perhaps.”  We don’t know why things happen.  We don’t know why Onesimus was born a slave, Philemon a master, some of us rich, some of us poor.  We are so quick to assume we have it figured out, and so to harden our ways.  “Onesimus deserves to be a slave!”

Instead we should focus on what we do know: God has called us to love.  And he has a plan, for Onesimus and for Philemon, to discover his love.


Our Gospel is the infamous, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children,” etc.

This reading too focuses on knowledge.  Most of the reading is taken up with Jesus’s metaphors of starting projects – building a tower or going to war – without proper planning.  The punchline is: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions” (or rather: “all that he has,” including family) “cannot be my disciple.”  We should plan ahead, and recognize the cost of discipleship.

But we can go a step deeper in light of our other two readings.  Obviously Jesus does not want us to hate our families.  But he does want us to realize that we don’t know his plan.  Like the slave master, we can be tempted to think we know exactly what role God wants us to play in the lives of our families.  Things harden in our foolish little plans.

Let go, says God.  It’s not that everything is random, that family doesn’t matter.  But you don’t know what plans God has for your family, how he wants to use those relationships, where he will take you.

Even in the metaphor of army and building, it’s not that the wise men know exactly what’s going to happen.  It’s that they have the flexibility to adapt to events.

God’s plans are richer than ours.  Let us not be too quick to think we’ve got it all figured out.


What parts of your life would benefit if you weren’t so sure of what’s supposed to happen?